Marya Hornbacher: A Bipolar Life – a Study of Manic Depression by the author of Wasted

There have been many many books written, both autobiographical, biographical and otherwise, on the subject of eating disorders. One of the more celebrated in recent years has been the memoir ‘Wasted’ by the American author Marya Hornbacher. In this book she explored the roots of her adolescent and adult anorexia and bulimia, which in the end threatened her sanity and her life as well as ripping apart her relationships with family and friends and deleteriously affecting her education and career. The descriptions of the most life-threatening and terrifying phase of the illness, during her college career, are absolutely heart-wrenching and disturbing.

Two Faces, Two Sides?

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The book enjoyed both critical and commercial success as well as an enthusiastic fan following, and was followed by a novel, 'The Heart of Winter'. This was also well received.


The third book from Ms Hornbacher is 'A Bipolar Life,', which is a second memoir from her. So what can we glean from this second exploration into her troubled existence? In 'A Bipolar Life' Hornbacher goes into her psychological problems, touched upon in 'Wasted', at greater length and in greater detail. Specifically we learn of her diagnosis as bipolar, or as it used to be known, manic-depressive, and her treatment for manic depression. As her psyche unspools, her first marriage deteriorates and dies, her career dwindles and her teaching post comes to an end.

Surprisingly she manages to keep going in many areas and many ways however: but often she has little memory of huge chunks of existence where she appeared to be functioning on top form while experiencing manic depressive psychosis. And eventually she has to accept the condition as a permanency in her life, requiring perpetual medication to ameliorate it. But the medication isn't enough in itself: she must also accept that all the habits and weaknesses of her previous life require management and modification, including her problem drinking and disordered lifestyle.

Does Hornbacher succeed in both her struggle with the bipolar condition, and her attempt to make a coherent, useful and beautiful book out of it? Certainly, given the challenges she has faced, she seems to make a better fist of the former than many of us could do in her place, especially given the severity of her condition. Her personal relationships seem to be rescued against all the odds, and it's a disease that all too often takes a terrible toll on these.

The book itself has a flatter, less poetic prose style than her first memoir, perhaps reflecting the still more desperate experiences it conveys. It is also, I must admit, a little repetitive in places. (And, truth be told, at times Hornbacher's self-destructive behaviour is just plain annoying, and makes one sympathise rather more with the other people in her life than with her.)

However, the book is still very compelling and does rather rend the heart. If you have already read 'Wasted', then you will want to catch up and read the second instalment, conclusive and satisfying in many ways, of Marya Hornbacher's autobiographical journey.

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